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State's Energy Use Dips 8%

Gov. Davis gives himself and Californians a big pat on the back for the reduction

Susan Sward, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, March 4, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


In a striking response to the state's energy crunch, California businesses and consumers cut their energy consumption by 8 percent in February, Gov. Gray Davis announced yesterday.

Davis, who has called on Californians to drop their energy use by at least 10 percent to deal with the state's power crisis, hailed the February reduction as a sign that "Californians are showing that they are willing to do their part."

With much to win or lose politically as he searches for solutions to the state's energy shortfall, the Democratic governor also took the opportunity to pat himself on the back, stating: "February's numbers are evidence that our call for energy efficiency and demand reduction is working."

The governor's office cited California Energy Commission data showing -- when adjusted for growth and weather factors -- that businesses and residents dropped their electricity demand by 2,578 megawatts during February. One megawatt produces power for 1,000 homes.

This lessened consumption comes in the wake of campaigns by the state's major utilities to try to reduce their customers' energy use at a time when the companies have found themselves paying skyrocketing prices charged by out- of-state generators for the power they supply to California.

Ron Low, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., said the utility has been mailing conservation messages and using radio advertisements to reach customers, spelling out ways to respond to the energy crisis.

"With our big energy users, such as manufacturing plants, we have asked them to conserve energy and offered suggestions on ways they can do that," Low said. "We believe there were days this winter and this past summer when we feel conservation efforts prevented rotating outages."

It was not immediately clear what the governor's office meant when it said the reduced consumption data had weather and growth information factored into it. National Weather Service records indicate that Californians' February drop in energy use was not driven by any unseasonably mild winter.

Rainfall this season is 102 percent of normal in the Bay Area, 98 percent in Sacramento and 150 percent in Los Angeles. But National Weather Service forecaster Steve Anderson said the storms have not been accompanied by shivery temperatures that might prompt Californians to scurry over and turn up their thermostats.

"The winter in California has been relatively typical as far as weather patterns go," he said. "We haven't had many extreme highs or low, heat waves or cold snaps."

Several consumer group advocates and environmentalists cited the February decrease in energy consumption as proof that the message is getting through to Californians about just how serious the state's energy crisis is.

Mike Florio, senior attorney for The Utility Reform Network, based in San Francisco, and a member of the Independent System Operator board that manages the state's energy grid, said, "The evidence we have seen is that during the crisis period peak, demand has been below what was predicted. I think people have been conserving."

Florio believes that the public could sustain that energy consumption drop for a while, "but then the real question is whether people are changing their habits in a way that will stick, or is it little stuff that will slip away as the crisis starts to dissipate."

He recalled that during the 1987-92 drought years, East Bay Municipal Utility District customers lowered their water use and never returned to pre- drought levels.

"People put bricks in their toilets, and I bet a lot of those bricks are still there," he said.

In the energy arena today, "once you buy a more efficient air conditioner or refrigerator, those tend to be permanent changes," Florio said. "On the other hand, turning down the thermostat may be something that won't stick -- I don't think people are going to endure what they perceive as hardship for a long period of time."

John White, the Sierra Club's lobbyist during the current round of energy legislation negotiations in Sacramento, said that during February, the state was often at a Stage 3 alert. As power reserves dropped below 1.5 percent of available supplies, he said, the media covered the issue extensively.

"It became more accepted by the public that something was really going on here," White said. He added that the February dip in energy usage "suggests to me we have an ability to do a lot more with conservation."

In the political realm in Sacramento, White said that from talking to the governor's office, he has "detected a far greater sense of urgency, and I felt the governor's people are seeing conservation as a weapon that could be used against the out-of-state-generators because every kilowatt we save is one we don't have to buy."

"Conservation helps us keep the lights on and saves the whole state money," White said. This sort of drop in energy usage "moves conservation from being seen as a sideshow and just something the enviros wanted to it being the first line of defense. Conservation is better, cheaper, quicker than all the other options we are talking about."

Like Florio, White said the real key will be whether "we can sustain this conservation and increase it by altering habits. The general rule of thumb is: Turn a light out in a room if you are going to be gone for more than three minutes, and if you don't have a modern computer monitor that shuts itself off after two minutes, shut it off when you leave the room."

As White sees it, the stakes are phenomenally high.

"All of us have been guilty of taking this energy supply for granted, and now all of a sudden, the whole state's economy is being threatened if we don't work out solutions," he said. "The whole mind-set not only of consumers but also government and the utilities has to change to make conservation the heart of response to the crisis, which will be with us at least during the next two years" until more energy supplies come online.

For PG&E information on conservation measures and programs, call (800) 933- 9555 or log on to

E-mail Susan Sward at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 10

-- Swissrose (, March 04, 2001

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